That’s the 21st century equivalent of wandering into a bathhouse or the obfuscating brush of a city park at night. Most gay men I know have never gone to either of these places trolling for sex — the word “cruising” is more likely to bring to mind poolside piña coladas and possibly a host of costumed Disney princess than it is a sexual encounter. It’s 2014 now, and gay life isn’t relegated only to the dankest, shadiest corners of the world anymore — nobody has to go “looking” in such places anymore, though some small segment of the population still chooses to (mostly leftovers from previous generations).
HBO’s Looking begins with its protagonist, Patrick, fumbling through the beginnings of a hookup in a public park, which is a winking method of making its audience roll their eyes and murmur, “Ohhh, dear.” Moments later, without fanfare, the encounter ends, and Patrick is laughing it off as a joke, an experiment, and we can relax. At least Looking is smart enough to know that this brand of dalliance is a thing of the past.
The show focuses on a trio of gay men in San Francisco — yes, San Francisco, which already feels a little on-the-nose. But so would New York, and so would Los Angeles, so let’s set that aside for now. Patrick is a level designer for video games whose longest relationship clocked in at under six months; Agustín (Frankie J. Avarez) is an artist who is about to move in with his boyfriend Frank (O-T Fagbenle); Dom (Murray Bartlett) is a server rapidly approaching his forties who still lives with his ex-girlfriend Doris (Lauren Weedman) and is still hung up on his psycho ex-boyfriend, so clearly he has issues with moving on. The pilot, “Looking For Now,” introduces minor complications for each of them, but mostly it’s just a slice of gay life in San Francisco, without aspiring to make any grand, sweeping statements or bold revelations. It’s apolitical, which is the shrewdest political stance to take at this moment in time.
Looking has an understandably high level of buzz, given that it’s premiering on HBO, which is still the cream of the crop as TV networks go. It’s no sudden miracle that the premium cable outlet that brought us The Sopranos and The Wire is gay-friendly; HBO has had a long line of shows prominently featuring gay characters, from Sex & The City to Six Feet Under to Game Of Thrones, and let’s not forget last year’s uber-gay TV event, Behind The Candelabra. Still, an all-gay show from television’s most prestigious taste maker is still a vote of confidence in gay audiences — it’s not an insignificant endorsement. Looking signals the normalization of gay culture in the TV space without literally calling that out, a la Ryan Murphy’s nobly-intentioned but failed The New Normal, which was the network sitcom equivalent of a screeching queen in cutoff jean shorts shirking, “We’re here! We’re queer! Get used to it!” in people’s faces. Looking isn’t trying nearly so hard, and it shouldn’t have to. The new normal doesn’t have to announce itself, because it’s just normal.
Two comparisons most immediately spring to mind as Looking makes its debut. The gay soap Queer As Folk bowed on Showtime nearly fifteen years ago, so in a way it’s surprising that it took this long for HBO to catch up to its premium cable competitor (which also gave us The L Word). And of course, it’s easy to look at Looking as HBO’s gay answer to Girls — until you examine the differences. Last night’s Girls saw Lena Dunham’s Hannah celebrating her 25th birthday; I’ve often wondered why the show is even called Girls, since it places a fair amount of focus on male characters, too, but the girls of Girls are absolutely girls, in the sense that they’re immature and not even close to grown-up. Looking is not just HBO’s Boys, then — Patrick is 29, Agustín is 31, Dom is 39, and they’re all somehow supporting themselves in one of America’s priciest cities. If anything, Looking is HBO’s Men — and it has the facial hair to prove it.
One episode in, Looking is already a lock for Hairiest Show On Television. (There’s an Emmy for that, right?) As beard after beard whizzed by on my TV screen, I felt like I was witnessing Sons Of Anarchy coming out of the closet. Either HBO is trying to keep costs of the show down by banning razor blades on set or Looking is the first TV show in history attempting to appeal exclusively to users of the Scruff app. (It worked.) And yeah, I get that this show is set in San Francisco, and that even if it wasn’t, facial hair is kind of a thing right now, but seriously — there are so many beards! Aside from Jonathan Groff’s clean-shaven Patrick, everyone on this show is hidden under layers of fur. Thus I think my favorite character is Lauren Weedman’s Doris, mainly because I can see her face when she’s talking.
Curious as to why Looking seemed to have such a thing against shaving, I stumbled across a photo of series creator Michael Lannan, which suddenly explained everything.
So, yes, the facial hair on parade is my problem, we can agree. In its initial outing, Looking does get a few things right. It isn’t as drenched in sex as we might have expected from the network that airs Girls and Game Of Thrones. Gay men have enough sex thrown at them as it is, because sex sells. Title aside, it’s nice that Looking doesn’t immediately feel the urge to appeal to the lowest common denominator — there are not really any cheap thrills to be found here (though there likely will be at some point, let’s be real). We had the shallow and soapy Queer As Folk for that. Looking is a little more now, a little more contemporary — it’s a much more diverse cast than Queer As Folk‘s lily white ensemble, though star Jonathan Groff is about as white bread as they come. As in last year’s film C.O.G. (based on a David Sedaris story), he’s a smart but socially awkward guy who hails from the upper crust, unable to shed the shackles of parental expectation. In C.O.G., Groff’s character was condescending and abrasive; here, he’s just kind of… there.
That’s the main problem I had with Looking (besides the beards). It doesn’t do anything too wrong, but by the end of the episode, I wasn’t sure I liked or even connected with any of these characters. Granted, this is a half-hour long pilot, and you can only expect so much. Agustín and Frank have a spontaneous threesome, which is a predictable and unexciting development for a gay couple that is moving toward making a larger commitment to one another. I guess that’s fine, but so far we have zero investment in them as a couple, so it doesn’t seem to matter either way. Meanwhile, Dom is nearing forty and growing frustrated with the fact that he’s still a waiter and the gap between himself and his intended sexual partners is widening to the point that a cute co-worker shrugs off his advances. Looking might eventually use Dom’s character to explore the arrested development of many gay men — what happens when middle age finally hits and you find yourself still living the same life you had at 25. But it isn’t there yet.
And what can we make of Patrick? One episode in, he’s still a bit of an anomaly. It’s not quite clear why he’s even hanging around Agustín or Dom, since their friendship is the least-explored aspect of the show. None of these guys seem to have much in common, but surely we’ll see more of that in future episodes. (By and large, though, gays of a feather flock together.) Patrick half-seriously attempts a hookup in a public park, scours OKCupid for his next true love (if he has one lazy eye, that might be okay), attends the engagement party of an ex he probably still has some feelings for, and goes on a bad first date with a high-on-his-horse oncologist.
Patrick’s date ends up dismissing him because he’s immature and not serious enough about a relationship, and maybe we’re supposed to read that as Patrick’s shortcoming — he did unwisely mention that cruising incident in the park — but the guy he’s out with is such a bore, we certainly don’t feel like Patrick’s missing out on anything. Who asks if someone is “driving disease-free” within the first few minutes of a conversation? (Or at all, using those words?) Who expects a 29-year-old to be ready to commit before the first date’s even over? Some wonder at how Patrick could be attractive, educated, and reasonably successful without ever finding himself in a serious relationship that outlasted a season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, but this is actually quite common for a young gay man in an urban location.
Through a chance encounter via public transportation with an aspiring hairdresser (please, let him eventually trim away some of Looking‘s excess hair!), we learn that Patrick has likely spent his time “looking” in the wrong places — he’s gone after guys who are just like him, when apparently he should have been looking on BART in a rougher part of town. Richie, played by Raúl Castillo, will be in every episode of Looking‘s first season, so we know this relationship is heading somewhere, but I wish the interplay between them had had a little more chemistry. So Patrick takes a chance on a scruffy Latino — so what? He’s already friends with one. From the title, we might assume that Looking is attempting to explore the brave new world of online dating and hookups, but it doesn’t really. We don’t actually get a sense of what any of these guys are “looking” for. Dom Facebook stalks his supposedly violent ex-boyfriend; Agustín and Frank have a threeway and then wonder if they’re one of “those” couples, with a shrug; Patrick meets a dull, rich jerk on OKCupid and then has a chance encounter in the real world with the flirtatious Richie.
I’m glad that Looking isn’t all about quick and meaningless sex, because we’ve seen enough of that elsewhere, and it’s about time other aspects of gay life were explored with the casual attitude of a show like Girls. It’s about time for a show that doesn’t try too hard to be “that splashy new gay show” or position itself as a political statement. No AIDS, no DOMA, no questioning, no coming out of the closet. This is a show about people — people who are gay, that’s all — and though they probably look just fine naked (I’m sure we’ll find out before season’s end), we do not have a poster full of abs as our primary motivation for watching it. All that is admirable, and it’s the reason why I’ll continue watching Looking for the foreseeable future.For now, though, these characters are not the reason I’ll continue watching, maybe because in trying to make these gay men so relatable, Lannan really just made them ordinary. To Dom I want to say, “Grow up and stop talking to your ex!” To Agustín and Frank I want to say, “Maybe try the commitment first without having a threesome?” Patrick I was to shake and say, “Why are you out with this lame guy if he’s not even buying your wine? Can’t you do better?!” These are not particularly compelling conflicts, and the show is not funny or unique enough to get away with its characters being such obstacles to themselves in the way that Girls pulls this off. Groff is a fine actor, but both here and in C.O.G., he’s come off a little too smug and self-satisfied for me to really feel any sympathy for him. I’m not really on Patrick’s side yet, and that’s a bit of a problem.
Looking is sometimes written and directed by Andrew Haigh, who brought us the fantastic film Weekend, which is what gave me higher-than-expected hopes for a show called Looking. (Because I guess HBO’s Wanna Fuck? seemed a little too forward?) That movie explored a casual encounter between two (scruffy) men that, in a short amount of time, quickly developed into something more — and that “something more” is sorely missing from Looking thus far. As of now, Looking hasn’t said anything particularly new or novel about gay relationships in the 21st century; it’s fine, but I wouldn’t call it funny or moving or all that much fun. Every episode contains the word “looking” — future episode titles hint at a mixed bag, including “Looking For Uncut,” “Looking For $220/Hour,” and “Looking In The Mirror.” I hope that it goes further toward developing these characters and strays away from the salacious. I hope that it avoids the expected pitfalls and predictable tropes of so much gay entertainment. And I really hope that, in an episode not too far from now, someone decides to pick up a razor.
“Looking” is just an updated term for “cruising,” after all, and it’d be nice if not every gay show had to be about that. Some gay men may use “looking?” as shorthand for sex, but like a wham-bam-thank-you-man in the park, such crude encounters are growing antiquated. Which is not to say that casual sex itself is a thing of the past — just that it’s no longer relegated to back corners of dark clubs and steamy saunas. We can use our words — more than just one — to find whatever we’re “looking” for. Not everyone does, I know.
So last night, I had a casual encounter with a new HBO series. He was decent-looking, if a little too hairy for my taste, but I was willing to overlook that. The conversation was fine, less scintillating than I’d like, but not as stilted and forced as it could be. He had an okay personality, but unremarkable. I saw some potential, but not a whole lot to get excited about. I think I’ll see him again at least once, just to see if it gets at any better. I’m definitely not ready to commit yet. I’m intrigued and open to possibilities, but not fully satisfied — as usual, I’m “looking” for more.